Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

It's one of the most popular educational games of all time

With no monitor, the original version of Oregon Trail was played by answering prompts that printed out on a roll of paper. At 10 characters per second, the teletype spat out, "How much do you want to spend on your oxen team?" or, "Do you want to eat (1) poorly (2) moderately or (3) well?" Students typed in the numerical responses, then the program chugged through a few basic formulas and spat out the next prompt along with a status update.

"Bad illness—medicine used," it might say. "Do you want to (1) hunt or (2) continue?"

Hunting required the greatest stretch of the user's imagination. Instead of a point-and-shoot game, the teletype wrote back, "Type BANG."

If the user typed it in accurately and quickly enough, the hunter bagged his quarry.

"Nice shot!" the program answered. "Right through the neck—Feast tonight!!!"

Once the players reached the Willamette Valley, Heinemann programmed a little bell inside the teletype to ring.

"I tried to be as clever as I could with the technology," he says.

In the scramble to finish coding in time, no one stopped to realize that they'd just invented one of the first simulation computer games.

Oregon Trail was played for the first time in Rawitsch's history class on December 3, 1971. He wheeled the school's machine into the classroom and turned it on as the class watched curiously. He divided them into teams and handed out paper maps to follow along.

There were a few obvious problems right away. With only one teletype, each group had to wait up to half an hour for its turn.

It didn't take long for the kids to poke holes in the hastily assembled code. They could enter negative amounts of money and actually add to their coffers. Sometimes they were told the date was October 0, 1848.

Eventually other teachers would protest that the mention of "Indians" wasn't politically correct.

But on the first day, none of that mattered to Rawitsch.

"They loved it," he remembers. "The person who was good at the map kept track of where they were, the person who was good at math kept track of the money. They formed a little collaborative."

Depending on the students' choices, each game came out a little differently. And though few made it to the end alive, rather than quit, the kids wanted to try again.

The trio of student teachers loaded the program onto the schools' so-called "timesharing" system, a library of programs that were accessible from teletypes within the Minneapolis school district. Dillenberger started letting his math students at Bryant try it, and soon kids were lined up six or seven deep outside the janitor's closet. They began arriving early to play and staying until teachers kicked them out.

"We knew there was something special about it," says Dillenberger.

When the semester ended, however, Rawitsch went in and deleted the program. Oregon Trail went dark. He printed out the code—hundreds and hundreds of lines of it on a long roll of yellow computer paper—rolled it up, and took it home.

It would be years before any student traveled the Oregon Trail again.

"I really didn't have an idea of how something more could be done with it."

  

BEFORE DON RAWITSCH had even arrived at Carleton, Dale LaFrenz was planning the infrastructure that would eventually make Oregon Trail a household name.

In the 1960s, Minnesota was a Midwestern Silicon Valley. Several early computer companies set up shop here—IBM, UNIVAC, Honeywell, and Control Data Corporation. In the days before computer stores, Minnesota had ample access to hardware manufacturers.

LaFrenz, a math teacher at a high school that was run by the University of Minnesota, thought that computers belonged in classrooms. He remembers it as a surprisingly easy sell.

"We had a tremendous amount of computer-literate people working in the industry," he remembers. "Everyone on the school boards knew it was the right thing to do. We were gung-ho computers."

LaFrenz and a handful of other educators helped found a body called Total Information for Education Systems. Through TIES, and with federal grant money, schools in 20 districts were able to purchase a teletype.

While TIES was flourishing, grumblings of discontent echoed from outside the metro area.

"We had an out-state-dominated Legislature," says LaFrenz. "They said, 'You guys in the metro area are hogging it.'"

Under that legislative pressure and in a time when the state was flush with cash, a statewide body called the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium was conceptualized.

"It is proposed that MECC provide computing facilities and support staff to serve the needs defined by education, and available equally to all students and educational institutions in Minnesota on a real cost basis," reads the original proposal.

MECC was born in 1973. It included representatives from every level of education and included 435 school districts.

While MECC was still in its formative stages, LaFrenz received a call from an old friend—a mathematics professor at Carleton.

"You got any job you could give to a conscientious objector?" the professor asked.

LaFrenz agreed to meet the young man. His name was Don Rawitsch.

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